December 24, 2011
This year, 2011, is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the most influential book in the history of the United States and of the entire English-speaking world. That book is the King James Version of the Bible first published in England in 1611.
The King James Version (KJV), also called the Authorized Version, is the most-read, the most sold, the most-quoted and the most-memorized book in the English-speaking world. It has been in continuous publication since 1611.
The KJV has had a great influence on the language, the culture and the literature of the English-speaking nations, including the United States of America.
In the U.S. Congress, House Concurrent Resolution 38.IH recognized the KJV’s 400th anniversary, pointing out, among other things, that “the language of the King James Bible has entered into the very culture of the United States through a myriad of poetry, speeches, sermons, music, songs, and literature..”
Various commemorations have been held during this year to celebrate the quadricentennial.
On May 2nd and 3rd, a public display was held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Across the pond in England, various commemorations have been held this year, some including involvement by members of the royal family.
Even Richard Dawkins has joined in the celebration. The famed British atheist activist spoke in a video produced by the King James Bible Trust in 2010. Quoth Dawkins, “You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are to some extent steeped in the King James Bible. There are phrases that come from it — people don’t realize they come from it — proverbial phrases, phrases that make echoes in people’s minds. Not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian.”
Even though there are many translations of the Bible in English – probably more so than in any other language – the KJV is still the most influential. Its poetic language makes it the easiest translation to memorize.
My grandfather died a few years ago at the age of 95. Near the end he could still recite the Twenty-third Psalm ("The LORD is my shepherd…") that he’d learned as a child.
The KJV was translated at a key period in English history, and indeed, is closely linked to the origins of the U.S.A.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir. Parliament offered the throne to Scotland’s James VI, a kinsman of Elizabeth. (Their common ancestor was Henry VII). Upon relocating to London, James became the King of England, serving simultaneously as James I of England and James VI of Scotland.
In 1607, the Jamestown colony (named after king James) was established in Virginia, thus laying the foundations of our own nation.
For my 2007 article on the Jamestown quadricentennial, click here.
In a meeting in 1604, King James and religious leaders agreed to the production of a new translation of the Bible in English.
The Bible, originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, is the world’s most-translated book. The work of translation into various languages continues today.
Bible translation is challenging. The conscientious translator has two goals: (1) Fidelity to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text, and (2) Good and understandable style in the target language.
The King James version was translated from 1604 to 1611. At the beginning, there were 54 translators, and 47 completed the project.
They worked in 6 groups under the direction of Archbishop of Canterbury Richard Bancroft. Two groups worked at Oxford, two at Cambridge and two at Westminster.
One of the purposes of the translation was that it was “appointed to be read in churches” and it is still very effective for public reading. In the early 21st century, the language is archaic. Interestingly though, the KJV already had an archaic flavor when they translated it in the early 1600s.
The King James Bible employs the third-person singular –eth ending. For example, it would say “he walketh” rather than “he walks.” Even in the time of the KJV translation, the “walks” ending was probably more common than “walketh.” Shakespeare (active at the same time) used both forms, but utilized the –s form more than the –eth form. However, the KJV translators went for the more archaic form. This is one of the archaic forms that help it to sound so good in public readings.
The KJV was not the first English translation, so the translators compared the earlier versions and used their wording when appropriate. They usually wound up following the wording of William Tyndale, the heroic Bible translator who was martyred in 1536. It’s estimated that over 80% of the KJV follows Tyndale’s previous translation work.
There is a legend that William Shakespeare helped translate the King James Bible. That is completely false, but it contains a grain of truth. Shakespeare and other great writers were active while the KJV was being translated, and it was a great period of English literature. Even non-believers recognize the great literary quality of the King James Version.
After its translation, the King James Version was slow to be accepted. The Pilgrims who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 preferred the earlier Geneva Bible, however the evidence indicates that there was at least one copy of the KJV on the Mayflower.
Eventually the King James Version became the most-used Bible translation in the English language. For some families, it was the only book they owned. It traveled throughout the world with British colonists, missionaries and sojourners of various kinds. It traveled across frontiers in the settlement of the U.S., Canada and Australia.
For millions of English-speaking Christians throughout the centuries, the King James Bible was the translation in which they read and studied the Word of God. Even today, many still read and prefer it.
Its literary influence is enormous. So is its influence on great orators. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was raised on the King James Bible and his great oratorical ability was influenced by it. The eloquence of historical black American preachers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., owes much to the KJV.
Many KJV expressions are used daily by people who don’t even realize it. Linguist David Crystal counted 257 English idioms that are in the KJV. Here are a few examples: “by the skin of one’s teeth,” “the land of the living,” “to give up the ghost,” “the salt of the earth,” “put words in my mouth,” “apple of his eye,” “stole his heart,” “root of the matter,” “at his wit’s end,” “drop in a bucket,” “eye to eye,” “powers that be,” “feet of clay” and “reap the whirlwind.”
There is another aspect of the King James Version that is very useful in Bible Study. The KJV indicates to the understanding reader whether the second person pronouns were singular or plural in the original Hebrew or Greek.
In contemporary Standard English, the word “you” might be addressed to one person, or various persons, which can lead to ambiguity. That’s why such constructions as “you all” or “y’all” are used.
In many languages though, including ancient Greek and Hebrew, there are singular you pronouns and plural you pronouns. The King James Version translators were very careful to translate these pronouns into English. The KJV is very consistent in this. In the KJV, “thou” and “thee” are singular, while “you” and “ye” are plural.
For example, when Simon Peter said “Thou art the Christ”, the disciple was only speaking to Jesus the Christ.
At the Last Supper when Jesus said “Drink ye all of it” to his disciples, he was speaking to the whole group of them.
In Exodus 29:42, in reference to the tabernacle, God says to Moses “…I will meet you, to speak there unto thee.” The pronoun “you” is plural, meaning the Israelites, and the pronoun “thee” only refers to Moses.
In John 3:7, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again.” “Thee” refers to Nicodemus and “ye” to mankind in general.
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In Titus 3:15, the apostle Paul writes “All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.” Thus it is Titus who is being saluted, and the grace is for all the Christians in the church of Crete.
See how useful this is? When you read the King James Version, you can tell whether the text is referring to singular or plural, through the use of these pronouns.
The King James Version is a great translation of the Bible. For millions of English-speaking Christians it was the only translation they ever knew. Its beautiful literary quality is unsurpassed in the English language. Its cultural and linguistic influence is enormous.
The 400th anniversary of the King James Version is indeed cause for celebration.
© 2011 Allan Wall - All Rights Reserved
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Allan Wall recently returned to the U.S. after residing many years in Mexico.